While basic pigments have been part of tattooing since its inception, technological advancements have enabled artists to craft ink in shades and tints of any colour as well as create new innovations like glow-in-the-dark ink.
While you’ll find people using the two interchangeably, technically, there is a distinct difference between “ink” and “pigment.” Pigment is related only to colour and is a part of a tattoo’s ink, which includes other ingredients. Because pigment is most often a powder, you need to evenly mix it with what’s called “carrier fluid” to easily and effectively apply it to the skin.
Carrier fluid needs to have the right thickness to:
1) properly flow through needles,
2) stay on the needle while it’s injected into the skin, and
3) come off the needle when it retracts back into the tube.
Tattoo artists over the years have seen a variety of carrier fluids – both good and bad. And if you’re planning to mix your own inks, it’s imperative that you understand which ones are safe and effective, what you can and can’t mix together, and what to completely avoid altogether.
Some of the most popular carrier fluids include:
- Denatured Alcohol
- Listerine (Yes, as in mouthwash)
- Propylene Glycol
- Purified Water
- Rubbing Alcohol
- Witch Hazel
A blast from the past – previously used carriers that you DO NOT want to use today:
Whatever you’re using as a carrier fluid, it must be sterile to your client. For example, whether you’re using a premade ink or one of your own design, you will always want to pour some of your ink into a separate ink cap so you don’t contaminate the entire bottle (and possibly introduce contaminants to your next client).
Note on clients: Most of the time, clients will trust your judgement. However, some might ask for a particular brand that carries a certain colour they love, or they might have a bias against anything other than pre-mixed colour due to safety concerns. No matter your opinion on their choices or questions, it’s your job to make them comfortable with the ink going into their skin.
The Fun Part: Pigments
Pigments create the beautiful colours you see in every tattoo – even black or grayscale pieces. Historically, tattoos were only created out of elements found in nature. But as the industry has grown, so has our ingredients list, allowing artists to create any colour imaginable with both natural and manmade materials.
Beware cheap inks: Low-cost inks that you see on Amazon are usually knock offs from overseas countries like China. Manufacturers are not held to the same standards that they are in western countries. As a result, they often attempt to cut costs by adding cheap and sometimes dangerous ingredients to their inks.
Some of these might include:
Green and violet
Orange, red, and yellow
Blue and green
Black, brown, and red
Green, white, and yellow
White and yellow
Blue, green, red, and yellow
Blue, green, red, and yellow
Brown, green, orange, violet, yellow
NAPATHA-DERIVED CHEMICALS Red
Other ingredients you might want to avoid include:
After understanding what can actually be in tattoo inks, it’s not difficult to understand why the ink itself is one of the major reservations clients have when it comes to their dream design. Some of these ingredients simply aren’t healthy for skin or the body. A step beyond, some of them are genuinely harmful or known carcinogens. Lead, cadmium, naphthol, cinnabar, chromium oxide, and cobalt are all considered toxic. Concerns over “glow-in-the-dark” ink is due to what chemicals it might introduce into the body.
Additionally, some negative effects can’t be predicted. If a client is allergic to an ingredient in the ink, they can experience a variety of uncomfortable reactions. The most common of these is from the iron oxide often used in red pigments. When this occurs, the client needs to see a dermatologist experienced in issues with tattoos.
To buy or to blend
Buy pre-made: Obviously, pre-made inks can save you time and lead to overall convenience that allows you to get to work faster. However, it will take time to find the inks and brands you like, and there are a ton to choose from. You’ll also need to consider:
- What price you’re willing to pay and what ink is too cheap for a good tattoo
- The reputation of the manufacturer and what they might put in their inks
- The vibrancy of colour you can expect
- How the colour might fade over time
Mix your own: Mixing custom colours is more time consuming, but it allows for custom colour creation. You can mix pigments to get the exact shade you want to apply with a little extra work.
Make your own: Some artists will go through the painstaking process of making their own pigments, and then mixing custom inks with that pigment. While this requires an understanding of the process and extensive knowledge of safety precautions, some artists prefer this method to ensure their inks are free of any harmful materials. If this is your choice, you will want to share it with your client. While it may be a misconception, some clients will feel pre-made inks are the safer choice for them.
Fact: The US Drug Administration DOES NOT regulate tattoo inks, meaning they are not tested or approved by the government for safety.
Note: Most tattoo artists DO NOT make their own ink, though they DO pay attention to what manufacturers say about their products and their ingredients.
The bottom line: You want to be using quality, sterile inks so that your client is happy with your work and will return for more or refer friends to you for stellar work. Whether you pour right from the bottle or craft your own, all reputable artists use sterile pigments and carrier fluids in their inks.
Pro Tip: Gloves: Whether you are combining several pre-mixed inks for the perfect colour, adding a tattoo supplier’s pigment to a carrier fluid, or starting completely from scratch, be sure to always wear fresh gloves and to take every precaution against cross-contamination. Protect your newly created inks by ensuring the carrier fluid is sterile and knowing how long the solution can be stored safely before bacteria might make it dangerous to clients.
While this is in no way a comprehensive list, these are some of the more popular ingredients used by artists who make their own pigments:
Iron oxide, carbon, naturally occurring bark
Azure blue, specific metal salts like Cu-phthalocyanine
Metal salts ferrocyanides, ferricyanides, Cu/Al-phthalocyanine, and Cu-phthalocyanine; malachite; monoazo pigment
Natural dyes like disazodiarylide and disazopyrazolone
Iron oxide or synthetic pigments
Turmeric, ochre, disazodiarylide
Quinacridone, diazine/carbazole, manganese violet, aluminum salts
Zinc oxide, barium sulfate, titanium dioxide
Mixing your ink
Don’t make your client sit and wait for you to mix several custom inks. Instead, mix your inks during your “down time” in the shop. Make sure you’re in a sterile environment and wear gloves and a mask to protect yourself and the integrity of the ink.
Tattoing101’s Best Ink Prep
- 7/8 Quart carrier fluid
- 1 Tablespoon glycerin
- 1 Tablespoon propylene glycol
- Mix in a blender until clear and store in a sterile container
- When it’s time to mix custom colours, combine the powder and amount of fluid indicated on the pigment’s directions.
- Blend twice. First on low for 15 minutes and then on high for an hour
- Pour ink into bottles and keep them away from light and heat to extend their life.
- Add a sterilized glass marble to help re-mix the contents (shake bottle before use).
Note: For smaller batches of colour, you can use specialized hand-held ink blending machines with mixing sticks. They allow you to mix colours directly in your ink caps. However, remember to never contaminate your bottles or other pigment containers if you use this method.
Caution: From “jailhouse” inks made of ground pencil graphite and shampoo to online suggestions from unverified sources, there are lots of “ink recipes” that are dangerous. For the most part, these hazards will be fairly obvious. Always follow the advice of professional artists that you trust.
Our take: Pre-made inks are well made and constantly becoming safer. In most cases, you’ll save yourself time and your client from potentially bad reactions by purchasing from a reputable brand.
Our tips and tricks
Because every artist has a different experience, you’re bound to run into conflicting opinions and advice, not only on your ink, but on every aspect of the tattooing process. When you’re unsure, go with the source you trust most and do your research so that you and your client can be confident in your skills, products, and process.
Black ink: Black ink tends to be thinner than other colours, affecting the amount you’ll need and the speed at which you’ll want to run your tattoo machine. You can use black ink to darken other colours.
White ink: White ink does not hold up as well as other colours so you’ll want to limit the amount of white you use in any design. You can use white ink to lighten other colours.
“Red Reaction”: It’s your job to let your client know that many people have an unpleasant reaction to red ink to protect them (and include it in your waiver to protect you). This is called the “Red Reaction,” and is often accompanied by swelling and itching. By making your client aware of this possibility, you are not liable if the tattoo needs to be removed or the client has to receive medical treatment.
Skin tone: Clients with darker skin or those who regularly tan might not be satisfied with their colour tattoo, as their skin tone will affect the vibrancy of the colour and will fade faster. You need to understand how your inks work on a variety of skin tones and make suggestions to your clients to help them find a stunning design that works for them.
There’s a lot to remember when it comes to tattoo ink and finding your ideal situation will take some time. As a tattoo artist, you have the exciting job of diving into a world of colour and creativity as you help people from all walks of life find self-expression and meaning through art. However, as with many aspects of the job, safety must come first, even as you experiment.
Want to learn more about safely handling ink, applying colour, and successfully working as a tattoo artist in today’s market? Our friendly Tattooing101 Online Training Course can help you go from complete novice to professional artist in just 90 days. Click here to learn more about the Artist Accelerator Program.